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Words, Words, Words

A Paper Theatre

Initial project 2013; see publication in WIRED here.


This project follows in a long line of investigations by our studio into space for performance which use non-conventional construction techniques. It is preceded by projects such as the temporary Royal Festival Hall and the Opera+ project for the EPFL in Lausanne, and is informed by our work on built projects such as the Young Vic Theatre in London and the CQS Space for Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic Theatre.

We propose with this project an intimate -yet grand- circular, 135-seat theatre made almost entirely of re-used or reusable materials.

The principal materials are scaffolding, bamboo and bales of paper borrowed from the recycling process. Secondary materials are cable, ratchet straps, polycarbonate and one piece of bespoke steel structure.

The brief calls for a ‘soundproof’ theatre (without specifying the degree of acoustic insulation). From experience we know this to be the principal challenge of lightweight, demountable buildings, usually enclosed by tensile fabrics: there is simply no barrier to the outside. Such buildings are also difficult to use from a scenographic standpoint, lacking solid surfaces, bridges and so on.

We propose a theatre made of essentially lightweight materials which is nonetheless massive and enclosing. The walls will be around 600 mm thick in tightly compressed card and paper, braced against a scaffolding frame which also serves as the access structure for erecting and dismantling the walls. The bales -costing 130 pounds per ton- will be resold for the same price after use in the building. There will be four doors -two for audience, two for performers, allowing a crossover- made of recuperated timber, set into massive timber frames (offcuts of cross-laminated structural timber such as KLH).

A sound-insulating, clear-span roof in lightweight material is an even greater challenge than the walls. Demountable structures usually imply a boxy form; more often, the structure comes with a predetermined geometry in ‘kit’ form (such as a circus tent). We propose a structure which is bespoke (if you’ll pardon the pun) in radiating bamboo purlins resting on the perimeter walls and a central, suspended oculus (which -in steel and polycarbonate- will be the only made-to-measure element of our building). Bamboo is a widely-used structural material in tropical zones where it grows abundantly; it is still used for scaffolding in Hong Kong. We work in collaboration with several bamboo architects and builders in Europe and can propose that the elements we use (for essentially transport costs) will re-enter an informal market of construction material exchange for other similar projects.

The roof will have a double membrane consisting of recycled circus tent material. These are commonly discarded after three years when they lose their tensile strength; we will source ours from the lively second-hand market for circus materials. Our membrane will be cut to the correct geometry and laid directly on the bamboo purlins (therefore requiring minimal tensile strength). It will be covered with a layer of bags loosely filled with shredded paper (as a thermal and acoustic insulant), and then covered with another circus tent-type membrane.

Construction Sequence (see images)
The scaffolding will be erected by a specialist contractor in 3-4 days, for a cost of about 10,000 pounds.

The paper bales will be delivered by a recycler and put into place using rented lifting machines (e.g. high forklift or cherry picker). The scaffolding structure will be used by workers to guide the bales into place and anchor them. This should take four days.

The central, 5 metre diameter oculus -whose structure will be prefabricated offsite- will be assembled and hoisted into place using 15 cables on crank handles, working through pulleys anchored on the scaffolding structure. The summit ring of the scaffolding will be cross-braced to resist and redistribute the cable forces -approximately 700 kg per line. The rooflight will consist of a principal structural ring with a toothed circular bracket cut to size to accept the bamboo poles (circa 120mm diameter). Above this will be a plate used to anchor the roof membranes with ratchet straps (they will be fixed at ground level, bundled tightly and lifted with the oculus). A polycarbonate dome or radially framed rooflight will provide weatherproofing and natural light inside.

Once the oculus is in position the 6-metre bamboo poles will be lifted using a central genie lift, the manouevred into position on the perimeter wall (by workers on the scaffolding). The poles will be anchored to the oculus and walls using mechanical ties, thereby stabilising the oculus. This procedure should take two to three days depending on the available workforce and equipment (two genie lifts can be used simultaneously).
The first roof membrane will be pulled out and lightly tensioned at the perimeter, oversailing the bamboo and the wall and fixed down to the scaffolding platform structure beneath.
The insulating bags will be spread on the roof and the second membrane stretched over them.

Interior fit-out
The exposed bamboo roof structure will give a warm, organic feel to the interior, in contrast to the rather haphazard, post-industrial effect given by the paper bales. To unify the interior we propose to line the walls on the audience side with evenly spaced vertical bamboo poles (these will also improve the room’s acoustic response). On the ‘stage’ side the walls will be lined with large-format corrugated cardboard panels treated with a flame-retardant. Two spur walls (forming a kind of proscenium, and -again- improving the acoustic) will be erected on a scaffolding frame. Seating will be made either of paper or straw bales stepped up to the wall and covered with chipboard or sheepskins.

Technical provision
A circular lighting bar -integral to the oculus structure- will serve for overhead positions (accessed by genie lift). A cantilevered scaffolding gallery at 5 metre height will run around the entire space for peripheral, back and 45 degree angles. Technical design and fit-out will be left to your staff.
The central oculus can be blacked out with a light-proof cloth cast over it and anchored with stones (or tied to the oculus structure). An access decking (in scaffolding boards) would be  laid on the finished roof to allow this. It may also prove worthwhile to cover it with a translucent cloth to avoid solar glare on the interior (as expressed in our daylit image).

The theatre floor will be made of rental scaffolding boards nailed together in a cross-layer system, possibly with an 8mm hardboard finish layer on top. This complex can be laid on tennis balls to achieve a sprung floor with a void for cabling etc.

Size: 300 sq.m

Studio Andrew Todd architects 

Philip Mellor-Ribet

Solveig Rottier

Andrew Tetrault

Andrew Todd

Federica von Euw

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